Sandy and the real climate change question

There's no clean answer to whether global warming caused the superstorm, but why isn't Washington even asking?

By Natasha Lennard

Published October 29, 2012 3:42PM (EDT)

While Hurricane Sandy batters increasing stretches of the East Coast, she has also thrown up somewhat of a false dichotomy question: "Climate change or freak storm?" Climate scientists remain split on the debate of whether extreme weather can indicate a shifting global climate, as Tom Chivers of UK newspaper the Telegraph noted, "The answer is no, or yes, or better yet 'you're asking the wrong question'."

Succinctly, Chivers explains why Hurricane Sandy can be used neither to prove nor disprove global warming, but nonetheless makes sense in a climate change narrative:

Warmer seas mean more energy in the cyclone systems that form tropical storms, which, it is hypothesized, means higher wind speeds; warmer air can carry more moisture, meaning, theoretically, more rainfall. Apparently the Earth's atmosphere is roughly four per cent more humid than it was in 1970. More wind, more rain: you can see why climate scientists have long proposed that global warming will increase the frequency and intensity of hurricanes.

But, of course, it's not as simple as that. For a start, there are enough unknown factors in the complex and chaotic climate system for it to surprise us entirely. But more importantly, because hurricanes are relatively few in number, it's difficult to sort out signal from noise... If Hurricane Sandy really is the biggest storm of its kind to hit the States, you might think that adds weight to the climate change hypothesis, but on its own it tells us nothing; statistical outliers happen sometimes.

As NPR's Adam Frank points out, climate experts have tried to parse the issue of extreme weather events and climate change in two general ways. Some seek to establish "what percentage of an extreme event's magnitude came from a changing climate." Others, like British scientist Peter Stott, "look at the odds for a given extreme weather event to occur given human-driven climate change."

While millions of Americans batten down the hatches and millions more stay glued from afar to Sandy's ruinous spectacle, no resolution will be found to the climate change/freak storm question. But it is nonetheless the question on millions of minds today, as it is every time an extreme weather event strikes. So why is neither presidential candidate this year exploring the issue with us?

As I mentioned Sunday evening, a group of climate activist gathered in New York's Times Square ahead of Sandy's arrival. They carried a large circular sign emblazoned with the words "end climate silence" and spoke out about the fact that neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama discussed climate change in a single presidential debate. As HuffPo's Mark Gongloff noted, both contenders have "studiously" avoiding discussing the issue at any length:

Rather than seriously trying to get global warming trends in check, or prepare for the worst, our leaders have instead worried about the short term. In the most extreme example of short-term thinking, Romney has talked about doing away with FEMA to help deal with the federal budget deficit, for example, giving responsibility for disaster relief back to the states, which of course have no budget problems of their own.

Speaking on "Democracy Now," Bill McKibben, co-founder of climate group (which organized Sunday's demo), said, "If there was ever a wake-up call, this is it." Not only climate skeptics, but serious climate scientists who fear the real threat of climate change might challenge McKibben's treatment of an extreme weather event as  such a sign. However, McKibben is correct that Frankenstorm should bring with it a "wake-up call" of sorts to Washington. Whether or not Sandy can be attributed to climate change is not currently a question with a clean, determinate answer. But because of Sandy, millions of Americans are worrying about climate change -- this should be enough of a wake-up call to bring the issue into mainstream political focus.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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